Looking back on thirty years of western film

With True Grit as the newest ranger in town and with Rango and Cowboys and Aliens already putting on their gun belts, perhaps it is time to look back on what the last three decades had to offer for the American western genre. Admittedly, there is not much to look back on, even though they did come up with some great films and a few box office hits. But what comes to eye, maybe, is that not much really comes to eye. The genre stays a bit dusty, even with high quality standards.

When thinking of fifties and sixties western films, there is no way to leave out the actors that weren’t actors anymore. They were cowboys. John Wayne lived the genre like Arnold Schwarzenegger lived action films and even though he couldn’t act for sure (his Academy Award for the 1969 True Grit was a homage to his overall career, not to his performance), his on screen presence was phenomenal. An outlaw couldn’t get around him before he’d hit him with a one liner in his distinct, raw voice. Or he’d just shoot him dead if the adversary was less lucky.

A director wouldn’t have thought twice before saying yes to a western script with stars like James Stewart or Henry Fonda attached. Today even with great actors it’s hard to make the genre profitable on the big screen, unless you have a name built up like the Coen Brothers. They have already worked their way into the genre with the original and contemporary No Country For Old Men, so it’s too bad then that they, with all their inspiration and finesse, had to do a remake next.

Illustrated here is that after the western era stopped being booming by the end of the seventies the genre is in dire need of reinvention. Of course there are some examples of originality (maybe most notably in combination with horror), but the classical western shot today does not differ much from the ones shot fifty years ago. Author Will Wright categorized the genre in 1975 by structure and evolution in his book Sixguns and Society, coming up with four different kinds of cowboy films. He based his study on over fifty films that were box office hits in about a thirty year period, leaving out the hundreds of B-movies from that time.

Wright dubbed the first of his four narrative structures the classical variation. These films were about a lonesome gunslinger protecting a society against cattle rangers or other types of villains. Western director Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramy, starring James Stewart as the hero, is a notable example. Stewart enters a town in New Mexico looking for the murderers of his brother, but there he finds the town to be terrorized by the son of a rich cattle ranger. This type of western is overlapped by the second one: the vengeance western. Instead of a lone hero entering a society it is about one that is not accepted by it, leaving him no choice but to fight for his own justice.

The third theme is categorized by three films only. Because it marked a transition between the first and the second variation Wright named it the transitional western. It is about a hero (or heroine) that gets rejected by society while defending it. Rio Bravo by Howard Hawks makes a good example, with main actor John Wayne as sheriff of a quiet town. After he catches a thug no one but an old man and a drunkard will help him defend the prison against attacks of the villain’s gang.

The professional plot is the final type of the golden era. It differs much from the previous three. Here the hero isn’t the typical hero anymore. ‘He’ could be ‘they’, for instance, and they could be bad. The westerns of Sam Peckinpah are the best example without a doubt. The Wild Bunch, as his most famous one, is violent, direct and uncompromising. A bunch of robbers plan for one last hit, but they flee after it goes wrong. Not only the style of the professional variation differs from the classical approach, but it hadn’t happen before that killers and bandits got to be the hero. In a change of morale (and legislation) American society was able to accept other stories than the good versus evil ones.

Then, of course, there is the spaghetti western, which saddled up on a whole new level compared to its American counterpart. These Italian, Spanish and even German films were often low budget, low brow but high profile. They gave rise to stars like Clint Eastwood or the comical duo Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill (both born and raised in Italy) and to directors like Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone. This complete reinvention of the genre hasn’t seen the likes since then let alone has the genre acted as a career launcher.

So when thinking of westerns after the seventies tumbleweed comes to mind, marking an empty vastness. I am not forgetting big budget films from the nineties like Dances With Wolves, Tombstone, Unforgiven or even The Quick and the Dead. These films are stand alone, not really belonging to an era or easily linked to each other. It’s hard to place some of them into Wright’s categories, which underlines their singularity. The rest is, as good as they might be, a continuation of the Wright variations.

The immense decrease in production numbers led many to state that ‘the western is dead’. That is a bit harsh, probably, but the genre is asleep for sure. Sometimes it dreams of films like Dead Man or of the genre’s demystification The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Although these films are great by itself, they are not encapsulated by films that define the genre in the present day. Some directors do look back on the Italian era (Rodriguez, Tarantino) and make contemporary films with high regards to the genre, others remake classics like 3:10 To Yuma or True Grit by the Coen Brothers.

The western is not dead per se, but it is not an innovative genre anymore. I am not trying to explain why this is, that is a complete new question to be answered, but it is a shame nonetheless. A genre with so many fans and a vivid history is now defined by only a couple of directors and even less actors. The western has lost its face, quite literally. John Wayne left a legacy but no heir, Clint Eastwood has abandoned the genre that made him the cowboy he still is in the eyes of many and other actors have simply passed away. The cowboy is a symbol of the past. Actors seized being one, today they just play one.

Perhaps the future of the western lies in mash-ups. Horror, comedy, science fiction? We have already seen Back to the Future 3, Wild Wild West, horror sequels to From Dusk Till Dawn and Tremors that were based in the west and actually quite a lot of other horror westerns. Now Cowboys and Aliens is coming up as a blockbuster and Rango will be the newest high end animation film. It is way to early to predict a trend, especially since these examples are spread out thin over the last twenty years, but who knows if coin in the studio pocket will revive the western. Will Wright may need to add a new variation to his book. The genre might evolve. Heck sonny, a new cowboy might even stand up.

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